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Ruth Elwin Harris

How many books have you had published?

Did you write for fun when you were at school?
All the time. I was the only person I know to have gained the Brownie Writer's Badge! I still have stories I wrote up to the age of 11 or 12, which I illustrated myself (very dodgy perspective in the earlier ones). When I was 13, I dramatised a novel by Kathleen Fidler for a school production. Kathleen Fidler encouraged me to write for the BBC's Children Hour but I was too busy writing turgid novels that never got beyond chapter 7 to do so. Now I can't think how I can have been so stupid to ignore her advice

Have you always earned your living as a writer? If not, what else have you done/do you still do?
Before marriage - I worked as secretary, personnel officer, civil servant, sailing instructor in children's summer camps off the west coast of Canada, in a seaside guesthouse (not all at the same time!)

After marriage - My generation was expected to give up work before the birth of the first child. I thought writing would be compatible with marriage and was astonished to discover it wasn't - largely because my husband has always regarded my writing as a nice little hobby so long as I don't indulge in it too often. I've never made enough to support myself, so I guess I should be grateful that my husband has been happy to do so!

When was your first book published and what was it called?
1986 The Silent Shore

Was it difficult to get your first book published?
It took 3 years, even though I had an agent. In the end I sacked the agent and found a publisher myself within a couple of months. So much for agents!

Which is your favourite of your own books and why?
Probably my only non-fiction adult book, which was based on a collection of World War I letters I read in the Imperial War Museum when I was researching the background for The Dividing Sea. The writer of the majority of the letters was a very endearing character who was killed on July 1 st 1916, and I felt very strongly - with almost missionary fervour - that the collection ought to be read by more people than would see it at the IWM. Fortunately my publisher (Julia MacRae) felt the same way and was happy to publish even though she knew such a book was unlikely to make a profit.

Otherwise my favourite tends to be the manuscript I am working on or, at the moment, Choices which I'm trying to get published. This has two main themes that interest me a lot., (1) the difficulties for teenagers when it comes to choosing a career and (2) how past events can reverberate down the generations and affect those who know nothing about them (I've always been interested in family history)

Which is your favourite children's book written by someone else?
Flambards by K.M Peyton, which brought back memories of my childhood home and thus indirectly inspired the Sisters quartet

Favourite authors from my own childhood were Arthur Ransome (I learnt a lot about sailing from his books before I even set foot in a dinghy myself) and Violet Needham

I had trouble in getting to Solla Sollew, adored by my children when small and a delight to read aloud, is a wonderful book by Dr. Seuss which few people seem to know

How long does it take you to write a book?
Depends on circumstances ( see answer to the question above other work). Unfortunately I don't earn enough to be able to rent somewhere away from home in which to write, though I have used friends' sparerooms, house-sat for others when on holiday etc. When I am on a final draft I do try to go away to a cottage up in the moors where I can bury myself in the story and the characters and have nothing but sheep and curlews to disturb me.

Do you use a computer or write first drafts long hand?
I use a computer for the first draft, print it out and then use both computer and pencil and paper

Do you have a writing routine or do you just write when you feel like it?
When I am writing, rather than research or planning, I try to keep to a routine, i.e. shut myself away in my room by 9.30 a.m.

Rewriting - do you love it or hate it?
Love it. I hate the first draft, in fact I find the first draft it hugely difficult but I'd happily rewrite for ever. There comes a time, though, when one has to say enough is enough, any more rewriting will ruin it.

Have you ever belonged to a writers' group? If so, did it help?
It certainly did when I started to write as an adult, partly because the group gave me support and encouragement which I didn't get at home, but also because members included professional writers of a variety of genres who could give constructive criticism as well as advice on how to set about achieving publication (The usefulness of writers' groups depends very much on the mix of members and their experience.) Nowadays I tend to rely on other writers for feedback.

Do you have an agent?
No (see my answer on getting published for the first time)

Why do you like writing for children?
Actually, I thought I was writing for adults (and I know adults enjoy my books too). I write what I want to write, and use my writing to explore things that interest me - sibling rivalry, for instance, and the differences between talent and genius and the effects of both on family relationships - things which do seem to strike a chord with teenagers.

Nowadays, unfortunately, publishers of children's fiction seem to have become much more specific about what they think children should want, particularly young adults. I'm having difficulty finding a publisher for Choices , which I did write specifically for children, because it doesn't fit in with current trends.

How do you get your ideas?
Usually doing something that keeps my hands busy but not my mind - doing jigsaws, working at my allotment, doing tapestry, walking. Listening to music can be helpful too. Sadly, I find that ideas don't come so quickly as they did when I was younger.

Do you draw the pictures for your books? If so, which comes first - the words or the pictures.
They're not illustrated.

What advice would you offer anyone who wants to write for children?
Read books written for children. Get involved with children, talk to the age group you want to write for (So much easier if you are a teacher, or have children/ grandchildren of the right age!)

Are you willing to do author visits to schools?
Yes, in the North Yorkshire area - top juniors, lower secondary. Please contact through Walker Books.

I'm also happy to talk to reading groups and adult writers' groups

For a list of Ruth's books in print,  click here

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